Should You Use Drugs for Labor?

How to make the decision that's right for you and your baby.

Pregnant woman in labor on hospital bed

Cultura RM / Charles Gullung / Collection Mix: Subjects / Getty Images

The decision to either use medications for labor and birth or not use medications is a fairly recent debate believe it or not.

It wasn't that long ago that medications weren't used commonly in labor and birth, and they weren't offered or readily available. From that point, we went to have them so readily available that they were given nearly without the consent of the woman.

From these radical positions, we've entered a phase in the history of birth where women not only have the choice but many choices. No longer is it just sit there and suffer from support or being given so many drugs that you have no recollection of the birth or the first few hours of your baby's life. The choice is not an easy one to make and most women do mull over the decision for quite some time, doing research on their options and trying to figure out how they can help themselves make this decision.

How to Make the Decision

First of all, don't listen to every woman who tries to tell you the horror story of her epidural or her natural birth. Chances are she had complications or a situation that she fully didn't understand and you are only going to get part of the picture.

Secondly, it's important to realize that there are many factors that will play into your decision to not use medication or to use them:

  • How much sleep have you had prior to labor?
  • How much energy you have.
  • How long your labor lasts, though this doesn't mean that you can't successfully go without medications in longer labor, just that you need to plan accordingly and pace yourself.
  • What position mom is in. Lying in bed is probably the worst position for mom, it can create more pain. Even if you need to be monitored you can do that standing up or from a chair or different position in the bed.
  • What type of support mom has. Is everyone with her helping her with labor or are they distracted and doing non-essential things?
  • What position your baby is in. Certain positions can create more pain for the woman.
  • Knowledge going into birth. The more you understand what is happening the less frightening and therefore painful it will be.
  • When to make the decision.

My best advice to answer this question is basically that you need to prepare yourself prior to labor and be ready to make the decision at this point. Many women find labor less stressful and painful than they believed it was going to be and find that prior decision to accept medications never became a reality because they simply were not necessary for them.

Other women find that their labor is longer or more painful than they had anticipated and other techniques are not effective enough and they choose to have medications. Until you are in labor you can't say beforehand how you will experience it or how long it will last, both important factors in the medication equation.

Even when women anticipated painful labor those who had studied and used the relaxation and breathing techniques from class found that they required fewer medications. One study also pointed out that what women expected tended to be what they had in labor. The anxiety of labor pain was related to pain experienced labor as well, including a lack of satisfaction.

To prepare yourself you need to take a good childbirth class that will teach you about positioning, relaxation, comfort measures, and medications. Having knowledge of all of your options is the best way to be fully aware of which one is the right choice for you and your baby.

Some Options for Pain Relief

  • Breathing techniques
  • Relaxation
  • Positioning
  • Water (Hydrotherapy)
  • Hot & cold packs
  • Massage
  • Sterile Water Injections (for back pain)
  • 'Gas & Air'
  • Stadol
  • Demerol
  • Nubain
  • Epidural
  • General Anesthesia

Pain Thresholds

When we speak of pain thresholds, we often talk in terms of pain that we experience on a more regular basis or associate with negative experiences. Probably the one I hear most often is dentistry or stubbing a toe. While it's easy to point out that the human body is meant to give birth and not to have dental work, what is often left out of the equation when trying to determine if someone has a pain threshold that will be tolerant of labor is the mental and emotional aspects.

Studies have shown that labor pain is often what we expect of it, whether that be a positive pain or a negative pain. We all know that it is pain with a purpose and that of something good — the birth of a baby. What we can't necessarily process is how someone will deal with the pain when seen through the eyes of their thoughts and emotions.

While some might perceive pain to always be a negative experience, according to some studies dealing with the pain of labor could also be a very positive experience for some women. This again just proves that we are all individuals and will deal with and process labor differently than our sisters and our neighbors and friends.

It is still not possible to predict who will experience it as negative pain or positive pain, other than previous perceptions. We've tried to compare a woman's menstrual cycle with how her labor will be with varied success. We've tried to equate the labor of her mother or sister to a particular woman with little success.

The end result is that while we have many options available to us, our job is going to be to determine what methods of pain relief are available for us, how we can best use them, realizing that every technique has benefits and risks.

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